Cleared for Takeoff

Our drone article from last year discussed their versatility so this year we will look at the air traffic management of those devices by one of the country’s most august institutions, NASA. NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley began studying the issue in August 2015 and looks to open a new department in 2019. Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management, or UTM for short, will identify primary use patterns of drones to safely and efficiently integrate them into low altitude airspace beneath 400 feet.  The new system is based on sharing of planned flight details for each drone. Each operator will have prior knowledge of flight paths so that drones can devise their own to avoid collisions. Once completed, the research will be handed over to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to partner for implementation. The research was broken down into phases called Technology Capability Levels, or TCLs. In 2015, TCL 1 researchers conducted field tests on drone usage for agriculture, firefighting, and infrastructure monitoring. This geofencing created invisible flight zones and virtual geographic boundaries to determine safety concerns. In 2016, TCL 2 researchers monitored unsighted drone flight paths in sparsely populated areas, calibrating for clearing airspaces in the case of emergency search and rescue operations.  In early 2018 for TCL 3, drones were tested to determine their ability to detect and remain clear of each other at various heights and trajectories should adjustments be needed mid-flight. The last phase, TCL 4, is scheduled for spring of 2019 where urban drones for emergency responses, deliveries, inspections, public safety, and mapping have to be tested in heavily populated environments. NASA is collaborating on UTM with several industries to create a first of its kind solution for any problem that a crowded airspace can create, with an eye to outsource the technology to other countries if successful.